Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Austria.


Austria’s contribution to EU foreign and security policy is very ambivalent. The country’s outlook is characterized by strong enthusiasm paired with dispiritedness, giving Austrian foreign policy a level of ambition of 3.5 out of 5.

Austria has high foreign policy ambitions, but when it comes to concrete engagement in conflicts, Vienna keeps a low profile and prefers to sit on the sidelines.On the one hand, this relatively small country at the heart of the continent presents itself as very ambitious. For example, the government in Vienna initially opposed opening EU accession negotiations with Turkey in 2005, strongly insisting that the EU should respect its own capacity to absorb new members. Similarly, in 2013, when the UK and France demanded deliveries of arms to the rebels fighting in the Syrian civil war, then Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger led the countermovement, which rallied a majority of member states.

On the other hand, Austria is seldom willing to take risks in support of its commitments or to advocate policies that would trigger unrest among citizens, most of whom shy away from conflict. When the situation on the world stage becomes uncomfortable, Austrians all too gladly fall back on neutrality—formally and informally.

Only a few weeks after the discussion on arms deliveries to Syria, Vienna quickly withdrew its soldiers from a UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights after the situation there intensified. After decades of involvement in the Middle East, this was a true break with tradition, which shocked not only Israel but also the UN secretary-general.

Austria has high foreign policy ambitions, but when it comes to concrete engagement in conflicts, Vienna keeps a low profile and prefers to sit on the sidelines.Austria’s Social Democratic Chancellor Werner Faymann and his Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz of the Christian democratic Austrian People’s Party relish their roles as intermediaries, sunning themselves in the spotlight of the media. This continues to apply to much bigger conflicts—even though in those situations, Austria’s role is at best to host the representatives of the conflicting parties in Vienna. This was the case during the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which the EU unceremoniously relocated to the Austrian capital.

Kurz and Faymann are less convinced about the EU’s relationship with Russia in the context of the Ukraine conflict. In Brussels, Austria consistently voted in favor of economic sanctions against Russia and the separatists responsible for the war in eastern Ukraine. Back home in Vienna, however, the chancellor stressed that he was against additional sanctions but in favor of peace negotiations.

What lies behind this contradictory stance? Austria has substantial economic interests in the Ukraine crisis, as many of its companies are exceptionally active in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia. Yet this is far from being the only reason for Austria’s ambivalence. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a welcome guest in Austria: during official visits to Vienna as well as private incognito ski trips to the Arlberg, the country’s politicians are only too ready to flatter him.

By doing so, both governing parties serve the deeply ingrained desire of the majority of Austrians to remain neutral in conflicts. Only a few weeks after the escalation of the 2013 Euromaidan antigovernment protests in Kiev, Kurz was the first senior European diplomat to suggest that Ukraine should follow Austria’s example and become neutral to avoid a conflict with Russia on the subject of Ukraine’s possible NATO membership.

This equivocation is rather typical for Austria. The small nation wants to play a key role in shaping world politics but, at the same time, is so worried about ending up in another uncomfortable conflict that it would like nothing more than to simultaneously remain on the sidelines.

This was the case most recently during the Yugoslav Wars in Austria’s southern neighbor in the 1990s. It is no coincidence that today, Vienna shows concern for the Western Balkans and aims to integrate all the countries of the region into the EU as soon as possible. Indeed, the ambitious foreign minister has declared this to be his highest priority.

When Austria joined the EU twenty years ago, a top diplomat in Vienna remarked that the country was arriving as the union’s “seventh founding member.” From the start, Austrian heads of government wanted to position their country as a core EU member state. They wanted to make clear that Austria would be as active a participant in the EU’s integration as France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux nations. There was a desire to establish Vienna at the top.

This was a surprising position to take for a country that had existed for decades as the neutral actor between the blocs of the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Yet in many ways, Austria did engage actively in the EU. After obtaining membership, Austria strove as quickly as possible for admittance into the Schengen Area by lifting border controls, and in 1999, it joined the EU’s monetary union and introduced the euro.

During the intergovernmental conferences between 1997 and 2007 on amending the EU treaties, Austria persistently reaffirmed its support of a consistent transfer of powers to the European level. This was a big difference between Austria and Sweden, which, like Finland, had also become an EU member in 1995, and which Vienna had often regarded as a role model during the postwar era.

However, there were also failures to Austria’s desire to shape European politics. When NATO was expanding in the late 1990s, there were attempts—mostly by the Austrian People’s Party—to quickly join the transatlantic alliance. But these attempts failed. Conserving Austria’s neutrality was a taboo for the party’s traditional coalition partner, the Social Democrats, as well as for the opposition parties.

Instead, Austria decided to modify the principle of neutrality that had in the past been applied rigidly: in cases of doubt, the government in Vienna would replace neutrality with solidarity with Austria’s EU partners if the country’s domestic security were threatened—while still staying out of wars and combat operations if possible.

Without a UN mandate, #Austria would not participate in #EU actions.
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Without a UN mandate, Austria would not participate in EU actions. However, if a mission had the UN’s blessing, Vienna would be quite willing to get involved militarily, though only with low expenses. Austria has distinguished itself as part of European Union Force operations, and lately, Austrians have even dared to go to Africa—to Chad in 2008 and now to the Central African Republic.

This ambivalence between the desire to be a key player in the EU and the fear of involvement is also reflected in the debate on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The government in Vienna formulated no big objections during discussions in the EU Council on the negotiating mandate for the deal. Austria, as a small, strong, export-oriented country, would probably profit quite significantly from the proposed free trade agreement with the United States.

However, because of widespread criticism from a population that is sensitive to environmental and energy issues, the country is now seen as the toughest opponent of TTIP. The country’s biggest mass-circulation newspaper, which the chancellor follows closely, has started a campaign against what it calls the “U.S. treaty.” Globalization critics, environmental groups, and the opposition parties have also launched anti-TTIP campaigns, which have achieved their intended effect of hardening the overall opinion of Austrian citizens. As a result, the government is retreating, which only further intensifies the public’s negative perception of the deal.

#Vienna keeps a low profile and prefers conflict avoidance over involvement.
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So the country that had to painfully bow out as one of the old European powers after World War I has found its role in the EU. In European foreign and security policy, the ambivalence of Austria shows itself to its full extent. The country’s ambitions are still great, but when it comes to concrete action, Vienna keeps a low profile and continues to favor conflict avoidance over straightforward involvement.


Thomas Mayer is the senior editor for Europe and NATO at the Austrian daily Der Standard.